Changes raise cost of new high school

The construction of the new Vashon High School and upgrades to other island schools are projected to cost the school district about $2 million more than originally estimated.

According to recent estimates presented to Vashon’s school board, the construction of the new high school building — as well as upgrades at the elementary and middle schools and high school gym that have already been completed — are forecast to cost the district as much as $49.3 million, more than the $47.7 million bond island voters approved in 2011.

The figure has led some to call the large construction project over budget. However, Superintendent Michael Soltman, as well as Capital Projects Manager Eric Gill, insist the project is on budget and say the cost difference can be attributed to board-approved changes made to plans for the high school and changes in the economy since the project began. Further, the original estimate anticipated the use of additional state funds for program and construction contingency. The added costs will be covered by funds the district has in hand, they said.

“There are no cost overruns on this project,” Soltman said.

In 2011 after the bond was passed, district officials decided that rather than renovate the school’s main classroom building, as originally planned, the district would tear down the main building and build a new high school, something the general contractor said would bring project costs down by about $70,000.

The new course, however, also gave the district more flexibility in what the new school would look like, and the school board ultimately voted to add a host of energy efficient and environmentally friendly features to the new building, such as an air-to-water heat pump, better insulation and a rainwater harvesting system. They also approved some features the board believed would be valuable to the community, such as wood accents made from wood harvested from the district’s own forest and higher quality systems in the new theater.

The added features were funded with state construction assistance funds — $2.7 million the district set aside as contingency and which was not included in the bond amount. Contingency funds also helped cover construction bids that came in higher than anticipated as a result of the improving economy

An additional $750,000 in energy grants  from the state and Puget Sound Energy, which were not in the original budget, helped fund green improvements such as a new boiler at the middle school and new thermostats in the high school gym.

Gill noted that while energy efficient features a the school — which will be built 30 percent above code — cost more up front, many of them will bring down the building’s long-term operational costs.

“These are board decisions to meet the goals of the project for efficiency and respond to community needs,” Soltman said.

Local activist Hilary Emmer, however, criticized decisions made by the district at last week’s school board meeting. Emmer says she considers the building to be millions over budget and said the board should have been more frugal in its decision making — calling features such as wood accents unnecessary — and saved extra funds for future needs once outlined in phase two of the project.

“They want to do a new gym and track,” Emmer said in an interview. “Don’t you think $3 million will go a long way in that deal? They’re showing they have no concern or care about my tax dollars.”

When asked if the building was on budget or over budget, Dan Chasan, chair of the school board, said he didn’t “think in those terms” and that it was “not over the current budget.”

While it would have been nice to have funds left over for phase two, Chasan said, the project changed and he and other board members are pleased with the final product.

According to Soltman, the district has estimated its remaining financial risk in the project — partly due to unknowns in the demolition of Building A — and in a worst-case scenario the project could come in about $600,000 over budget. However, that amount, he said, would be easily covered by the $2 million construction reserve balance.

“I don’t hear anybody saying they don’t like the building,” Chasan said. “We are not going to have to ask people for more money, and we’re not going to have to cut corners. Those strike me as the important things.”

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